Three Reading Suggestions: Tremblay; Elman; Johnson

Over 10,000 people have received the M.F.A. degree in writing poetry this past decade. Maybe one in ten will still be writing at the end of the coming decade. Even with that level of attrition, there is no way that I can possibly keep up with what is “new” in poetry. In fact, I am still discovering work that I missed in more recent decades by older writers.

I have three books to recommend that I just read for the first time:

Shooting Script: Door of Fire — Bill Tremblay (Eastern Washington University Press, 2003)
Cathedral-Tree-Train and Other Poems — Richard Elman (Junction Press, 1992)
Minor Characters — Joyce Johnson (Penguin, 1983)

The first two books in my list perhaps coincidentally feature depictions of real-life characters who were painters. Tremblay’s book-length poem is a masterful account of the historical intersection of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky. It is the perfect companion piece to read (and re-read) along with Peter Weiss’s The Persecution and Assassination of Jeap-Paul Marat, as Performed by the Inmates at the Asylum at Charenton, Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.”

Tremblay has been producing outstanding poems for o half-century, and deserves far more recognition for his writing. His impressive body of work begins with a book that caught my attention back in the early 1970s, Crying in the Cheap Seats. While he has received several awards, and has hardly gone utterly neglected, there is something about his work that sets it apart and makes it not easily assimilable to the current fashion. For one thing, there is an undercurrent of steadfast imperviousness to his work: he is not beholden to anyone, and does not ever intend to permit himself that easy way out. Granted the distant influence of Frost, which is almost impossible to avoid for anyone engaged in narrative with a depth-of-field plasticity, Tremblay’s work summons us to be conscious of our own lives as readers in need of imagining provocative continuums.

Richard Elman was better known as a journalist and fiction writer, but the title poem of his volume from Mark Weiss’s Junction Press (when it was located in Tucson, Arizona) is one of the most remarkable testimonies about the self-destructive allure of the imagination I have ever encountered. I had never heard of the painter Keith Sanzenbach until I read Elman’s poem, but I look forward to a chance to see more of it in person. The cover image of Elman’s book has a reproduction of a painting that belongs to the Oakland Museum of Art, and its snail-whorl vortex portends the stillness that awaits our transitions from mortality. I wish it were possible for the art critic Peter Schjeldahl to have a chance to write about a show of his work. In the meantime, Elman’s poem will have to serve as the introduction to a catalogue copy yet to be published.

The third book I want to recommend to my readers is Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters. While this book won a major award, and completely deserved it, it far exceeds the distinction accorded it. Her self-portrait of a woman aspiring to become a writer in the 1950s has assessments of the human condition that made me stop the forward progress of avid curiosity about the next sentence, and interrogate myself about the relevance of her insights to the lives of my friends as well as myself. A short while back, I praised Cherrie Moraga’s recently published memoir. Once again, the term companion piece comes to mind: Johnson’s book should be side-by-side with Moraga’s on your bookshelves.

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